By Keysha Drexel
When Sandra Taylor returns to the stage May 30 to lead a cast that represents a veritable who’s who of Birmingham-area actors, it will be a homecoming of sorts for the retired theater teacher.
Taylor, who retired from Hoover High School in 2005 after teaching theater in the Birmingham area for 30 years, will join some of her former students when she treads the boards in City Equity Theatre’s production of the Tony Award-winning “August: Osage County” May 30-June 9.
“Doing this production is like coming full circle,” the Homewood resident said. “I’m being reunited with some of my former students, and I’m taking on what is probably the most challenging role I’ve ever played.”
In Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning dark comedy, Taylor plays the role of Violet Weston, a sharp-tongued woman who has several addictions and is dying of cancer. With a large cast of eccentric relatives, the play shows how a dysfunctional family must confront its present and its past.
But unlike her character’s journey into the past, Taylor said the production has brought up some of her most cherished memories from her career as a theater teacher.
“When I was teaching those kids, those were some of the best years of my life, and I had a ball doing it,” she said. “We did some wonderful theater, and it’s been such a blessing to watch them grow into professionals. I’ve got kids everywhere now.”
One of those “kids” is City Equity co-founder Alan Gardner, who was Taylor’s theater student at W.A. Berry High School in Hoover. Hoover High School replaced Berry High School when it was built in 1994.
“I remember it just like it was yesterday. Alan was this little tow-headed blonde boy in my class, and I called him up to my desk one day and told him that UAB was looking for drama students,” Taylor said. “Now he’s all grown up, a professional actor, and I’m acting in his theater company.”
Gardner, the theater director at Vestavia Hills High School, said he is happy to be working with his former teacher.
“It’s wonderful to work with her again. I’ve known her since I was 17 years old when I took her beginning acting class as a senior at Berry High School,” he said.
After Gardner won a scholarship to UAB to study theater, he and Taylor worked together on his first college production in 1986.
“I was a guest director in Alan’s first college production and was casting the show and in walks this dynamite young actress named Carolyn Messina,” Taylor said.
Messina plays Taylor’s daughter in “August: Osage County” and said she feels privileged to be able to work with Taylor and Gardner again.
Messina said a recent rehearsal of the play at UAB’s Bell Theatre gave her a pleasant feeling of deja vu.
“To walk into Bell auditorium for our first reading of this play and there’s Alan and Sandra at the table on the stage where we really all first met all those years ago, it kind of felt like coming home,” Messina said. “It was like we just picked up where we left off, seamlessly.”
And while Taylor was never Messina’s official teacher, the 45-year-old professional actress said she got the same feeling rehearsing with Taylor now as she did 27 years ago.
“It was just like being 18 years old again and walking into an audition with Sandy Taylor where you know she means business but at the same time, she is so warm and welcoming,” Messina said. “It was like picking up right where we left off.”
Messina, who after graduating from UAB worked with Taylor in a show at the Terrific New Theatre, said even those who had never been her students gravitated towards Taylor for advice and help.
“She’s the consummate professional but also at the same time, she gives you this freedom to create, and no matter what age you are, she makes you feel like a valid person,” Messina said. “We used to quote her and mimic her, all out of pure love and respect and admiration.”
“August: Osage County” has also provided the means for another special reunion for Taylor.
The production’s set designer, Nicole Allen, was the technical director on the show Taylor directed starring Gardner and Messina at UAB back in 1986. Allen also worked with Taylor at Hoover High School as a technical director in the theater department.
“I’ve known her since she was a child attending the Alabama School of Fine Arts, and it was so good to know she was designing this set because I’m blind in one eye and in one scene, I have to go down a long flight of stairs, and Nicole knows me well and designed those stairs to make it as easy as possible for me,” Taylor said.
Taylor said she has also turned to her former students at City Equity to help her as she takes on the daunting task of bringing Violet Weston’s character to life.
“I was nervous about returning to the stage because it was two or three years ago the last time I did a production. Just the other day, I asked Alan to help me with a couple of scenes, and I’ve been bouncing ideas off of Carolyn, too,” she said. “This is not something I’m just tap-dancing through–it’s hard work.”
But even though it is a challenging endeavor, Taylor said she believes she was supposed to play the role in the City Equity Theatre production.
“I don’t believe in coincidences, and it’s no coincidence that this show has brought so many people back together again,” she said. “Before I auditioned, I turned it over to God, and I really believe I’m supposed to be doing this.”
And two or three years has been almost too long to be away from the stage, Taylor said.
“It gets in your blood and it becomes your passion. You learn that you can take the printed work of a playwright and breathe life into their characters and then have someone sit and respond to what you’re doing. It’s the ultimate in communication, and it puts a fire in your belly,” she said.
But growing up in Dadeville in rural Tallapoosa County, Taylor said she never dreamed that theater would be her life’s passion.
“I was a country girl. I lived in a small town in the late 1940s and ’50s, and my school didn’t have a drama department,” she said. “At that point, a life in the theater was the furthest thing from my mind.”
But Taylor did know she had a gift for gab and an outgoing personality.
“There are a lot people who will say that I came into this world acting–whether that was acting up or acting out,” she said. “I was very much the extrovert growing up and loved to be the center of attention.”
After high school, Taylor went to Auburn University and took a public speaking class that changed the course of her life.
“I sort of found myself at Auburn, and that was the class that started me off on this adventure,” she said.
Taylor majored in speech and worked on campus radio and television shows with the goal to get into broadcasting after graduation.
“I finished at Auburn in 1963 and back then, there weren’t a lot of women on television and it was a very competitive environment,” she said.
So Taylor decided to answer an ad for a speech teacher at Jordan High School. During that interview, the principal asked Taylor a question that would lead her to a life in theater.
“The principal said, ‘Yes, we need a speech teacher, but do you know anything about drama?’ and I remember telling him, ‘No, but I can learn,’ and the rest is history, my history, my life,” she said. “That was 1964, and I’ve been studying and learning about theater ever since.”
To prepare for her new role as a drama teacher, Taylor traveled to what was then called Howard College for a summer workshop for theater teachers.
“At that point, I was just trying to learn enough to stay one step ahead of the kids I was supposed to be teaching,” she said.
Taylor threw herself wholeheartedly into learning everything she could about theater and spent school breaks and summer vacations working apprenticeships and taking on roles in community theater projects.
“There was a lot of opportunity to learn by doing,” she said.
After a few years teaching high school, Taylor said, she wanted to get more formal training in theater, so she starting pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Alabama with the goal of teaching theater at the college level.
But after getting her master’s degree and teaching at a college in South Carolina, Taylor said she realized being a university teacher wasn’t what she wanted to do after all.
“And of course, there’s always a boy involved, isn’t there? In South Carolina, I had fallen in love with a man who wanted to be an actor, and I wanted to teach. We had different goals, and it didn’t work out. I was homesick and heartbroken, and so I came back home to Alabama,” she said.
After returning to the Birmingham area, Taylor took a job as an English and speech teacher at Berry High School in Hoover, but she missed teaching drama and thought about quitting early.
“I called the principal to resign and when he asked me why, I told him I wanted to teach theater, so they started out letting me teach one theater class a day in a hot school gym,” she said. “I ended up teaching theater all day long, and when they built the new school, they built a fabulous new theater.”
And that theater was named in Taylor’s honor.
“I have a great deal of respect for the Hoover school system and the excellent work they do there for the kids,” she said. “Hoover gave me a chance, and for that, I will always be grateful.”
During her 20-year tenure in Hoover, Taylor also gave a lot of kids that same kind of chance to shine.
“My main goal was always to help them believe in themselves,” she said. “When a teacher knows her subject matter and believes in a child and helps that child believe in themselves, anything is possible, the moon is possible.”
Taylor said she always taught her students about the risks and potential pitfalls of pursuing a life in the theater.
“I always told them that if they could be happy doing anything else professionally to do that, because it can be such a hard, difficult life,” she said. “But if I knew that a child would be miserable doing anything else but theater, I told them to go for it, go for it, go for it,” she said.
Gardner said that “go for it” mentality is among the most important lessons Taylor has taught him.
“She taught me that the greater the risk, the greater the reward,” he said. “And there is never a substitute for simple, straightforward hard work.”
But Taylor said it wasn’t just her students who were learning a lot during those years in the high school classroom.
“I wouldn’t be who I am today without those kids and what they taught me,” she said. “In the same way that I saw potential in them and encouraged them to find themselves and live up to their potential, they helped me find myself and to find my purpose.”
Taylor said as a teacher, she always felt a bit like a mama bird watching her young charges fly from the nest under their own power, worrying and wondering where they might land next.
“And sometimes where they land surprises even me,” she said.
As an example, a few years ago, Taylor went to see a Broadway play, and it was only after she got back to her hotel room and was looking at the playbill that she realized one of her former students was in the ensemble.
“You never know where these talented students will end up, and it’s always wonderful to hear about them going on and working professionally,” she said.
As someone who is passionate about both education and theater, she is worried that some schools across the country are cutting back on fine arts and offering less and less music, art, dance and theater classes in public schools.
“We have to keep the arts in the schools,” she said. “There’s so much more to education than reading and writing and math.”
As a theater teacher, Taylor said she saw arts education totally turn around more than a few troubled teens.
“I’ve seen belligerent, lost kids with no self-esteem that are following the wrong path get involved with a play or learn to play an instrument or to paint, and they find a purpose and hear that applause and they feel good about themselves,” she said. “That alone shows the value of keeping the arts in our public schools.”
For more information on Taylor’s turn in “August: Osage County,” visit www.cityequitytheatre.org.